New TV collection makes Marx fans Shout for joy

marxtvWho knew Harpo Marx made a series of TV commercials for Labatt’s beer? That’s just one of the delightful surprises found in The Marx Brothers TV Collection. The collectible gem, graced with a terrific cover illustration by Drew Friedman, is from Shout! Factory and hits the street Tuesday Aug. 12. Order it here from Shout! and get a bonus disc plus a poster.

The black and white Labatt’s ads were apparently shot in 1960 in Toronto. Harpo was paid $11,500 for these four spots. They feature this creepy little puppet who wears a yodeling cap and liederhosen; one look at this thing and you’d want to down a whole case of Blue.

The 3-disc, 10-hour box set contains over 50 TV appearances. Many fans of the Marx Brothers movies would assume the act was over once their last films were made. A Night in Casablanca (1946) was the last one Groucho ever acknowledged but Love Happy (1949) is also out there for those who want to fast forward through to the Marilyn Monroe cameo.

All three brothers, however, performed throughout the ’50s on television. Groucho reinvented himself as a game show host, starring for 11 seasons on one of TV’s top-rated shows, You Bet Your Life. Chico, always in debt as a compulsive gambler, did anything: The College Bowl (1951), I’ve Got a Secret (1954; his secret was that he was Chico disguised as Harpo) and Championship Bridge (1960).

Most fun was seeing Chico and Harpo perform their old four-handed piano routine in a 1952 episode of The Colgate Comedy Hour. The two brothers would do this same number live around that time as part of  a Las Vegas act.

Groucho and Harpo remained in demand as guest stars on TV’s bigger variety hours. On of the most entertaining is Groucho guesting on The Jackie Gleason Show in 1967. It is surprising to see Groucho perform, in colour, with his old painted-on mustache, the way he appeared in all the Marx Brothers movies. Gleason plays the sketch to the hilt as Reggie van Gleason, wearing an outrageous stove pipe hat. The two vamp through a re-working of an old Gallagher and Sheen vaudeville number. Groucho’s uncle was part of that act and you can see the delight on the faces of the two comedians as they indulge in the comedy of their youth. It would be like seeing Louie C.K. and Jerry Seinfeld perform “Who’s on First?”

Harpo is featured in a 1962 episode of The Red Skelton Show. Skelton carried on the mime tradition and it is cool to see these two clowns play together, a bit like seeing Wayne Gretzky on a line with Gordie Howe. There is little sense that Harpo is 70 and in one of his final TV appearances.

Really fun is Groucho’s 1955 appearance on The Jack Benny Program. In a delicious sketch, Benny appears in disguise as a guest on You Bet Your Life. The writing is exactly right and so are the performances. These two guys had a history dating back to early vaudeville and you can see how much silly fun they are having as TV headliners into their sixties.

There are plenty of other little tidbits and rare gems, including home movies narrated by Harpo’s son, Bill Marx.

I was also delighted to finally see Harpo’s 1960 performance as a dramatic star on The DuPont Show with June Allyson. He plays a store window “mechanical man” who witnesses a murder in what plays like a Twilight Zone episode. I’d only ever seen still pictures of Harpo in the bizarre store window makeup. The role allowed him to remain mute and it showed he could hold a TV audience without his harp or bag of comedy tricks.

There are some big Marxian TV moments missing. Harpo on I Love Lucy is not here but who hasn’t already seen it. Groucho’s early gigs hosting The Tonight Show are lost. Harpo and Groucho on Edward R. Murrow’s Person to Person are not on this collection, nor are early appearances by Groucho and Harpo on The Today Show, but they can be seen as extras on existing Marx Brother movie sets.

The Marx Brothers TV Collection is everything else, all the stuff fans of the trio feared long lost. It truly is a must have for any fan of the comedy legends. It provides another 10 hours with three people who simply never wear out their welcome. As Chico would say, Atsa fine.

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